Two Branches of the Story-Teller’s Tree


For a long time now I have been considering how storytellers try to show the nature of reality.  It seems to me that there are two branches of thought we use.

(I’ll be over-simplifying terribly. Be ready for that.)

One branch of world-building involves treating events and the beings caught in those events as though they were happening in a human family. And families lead to clans.  To nations. Empires. Such stories build their empires, or their pantheons, generation by generation, and keep the hierarchies always firmly structured. By doing so they create a lot of interest – and tension – in the different goals and motivations of the parties involved.

  It seems so natural and so very, very human to structure a reality like that. And, being human, these stories always involve hierarchy.  Without hierarchy, it’s hard to build tension, in world-building.

World-building leads, of course, to plot-building. Oodles of lovely plots.


But there’s another branch on the story-tree.  It involves starting out with things or events just sitting there, like fields of grass or stones.  Found objects. Then it requires observing them: how they change through time into other things.  This seems a colder and drier way to write – at first glance – and less interesting.

But only at first glance.

I have just this morning seen the name Manannan Mac Lir, who is a character in a story I am reading, and I had a moment of dual vision about him.  On the first branch of ‘story’, he is the son of Lir and has all the baggage of family that comes attached to that.  In stories written about families of gods, with their whole pantheons, that can be an overwhelming amount of luggage.  Strife, loyalties, betrayals, loves.  All good stuff for story-making. 


But if I think of the same character-name in the other way –  on what I called the other branch of story-telling – Manannan Mac Lir is the son on Lir, or Ocean, and has been linguistically defined as a part of Ocean.  He is exactly that part of Ocean that involves man and the rest of the mammals, birds, and the other kinds of sea-life. Lir, who is simply Ocean, is a huge and simple fellow. Manannan is the region where the sea meets the shore and where most things happen.  (Manannan became the name of the Isle of Mann. He’s still with us, even without the stories.)  Thinking about this character in a not-particularly human way is not as sterile as it might seem.  It leaves us openings for interesting creatures from coral reefs and stories about them, to tales about voyages by ship.

I picked Manannan Mac Lir simply because I was reading one random book before I sat down to write this.  I could have used Athena, or Odin, if I had to start with a god as a character. I didn’t particularly want to start with a god.  Just happened.

At the moment I seem to be talking about stories of fantasy or old history, but that’s just  because  of the book I was reading when I started thinking.  Empires or hectic family reunions can be written in technological language, too.  A wyrm or a worm-hole may be used to the same purpose in a story, and can be used in either branch of the story-tree.


What I’m trying say is that one way of looking at things is more human-based and the other is more animist.  Animism is a word I picked up through anthropology studies.  It refers to old religions that believe there is life in everything, whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral. Animism is considered by scholars to be primitive.  It was what came before people structured their ideas into charts and categories, and their beliefs turned into pantheons.

Instead of calling it primitive, I like to call animism intimate.  It underlies every interaction of the eye and of the mind as they meet outside reality.  A person may pick up a pebble or a leaf from the ground and say, casually, “This thing speaks to me, somehow.”  And then he or she might put that bit of stuff into a pocket and think about it later.  Maybe draw a picture of it, or write a story sparked by it.  And, of course, I can’t limit the idea to things like pebbles; they  can be CGI, color-altered photos of the event horizon of a black hole.  Harder to stuff into your pocket, but not into your mind.

The meaningful bit to me is that the thing ‘speaks’ to us.  This is a very different sort of interaction than re-creating one more version of the Greek pantheon.  Or Galactic Empire.

(I told you I’d be over-simplifying. I hope you took me seriously.)

Every story worth its salt, (and does sodium chloride ‘speak’ to you?) has both sorts of interaction happening: both the human, hierarchical, and very complex patterns, and the very intimate and primitive reaction of a story-teller’s words describing a field of grass.  To be fair, there are not two separate branches of thought in story-making.  They come together again and again, like a weave.  Like mycelium growing in the ground.  Like neurons.

But story-tellers wind up showing their preferences – or at least their ease with the different strands – in every word they write.  And it has only occurred to me in the last few years that I am, by nature, an animist.  I’ve written three books which are best described as fairy tales, and neither of them have the fairies being a part of any known pantheon or fairy court.  They came out of the ground, like leaves or pebbles, and simply ‘spoke’ to me. I think I lack the necessary part of the brain to keep all that huge cast of characters going.  I’m not an epic-scale writer and don’t aspire to be one.

The writer who comes to my mind as having mixed the two branches of story-telling most successfully is T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King.  That huge tome is by no means a perfect book, unless you are describing the first part: The Sword in the Stone.  The Once and Future King is the rambling narrative of an opinionated and troubled man.  And White didn’t care to hide his feelings from the reader. I like that sort of boldness, when the writing is good. 

 I remember that when I first read that huge book I wondered what White had against the people of the Island of Orkney.  His anger against them seemed so outsized.  So much bigger than the island itself.  But the entire thing was so perfectly intimate that I couldn’t put it down. 

White had the entire Arthurian mythos – the Matter of Britain – to anchor his story.  He is still the only one I have read who has made the character of Arthur meaningful to me.  When you come down to it, King Arthur is a very dull character.  It has always been the accessory characters who made that story. 

I think White was more of an animist.  Perhaps that is why I respond to him.  Why he ‘speaks’ to me.

Like a pebble in my pocket.


10 thoughts on “Two Branches of the Story-Teller’s Tree”

  1. This summer I found you Damiano series at a library book sale, and I hadn’t heard of you but thought the premise was interesting.

    I absolutely loved them, and wanted to thank you for writing them. I particularly liked how real the animal characters became, and how they were equally as interesting as the humans.

    I read about your troubles on wikipedia and am glad to hear you are now able to continue writing. I can’t wait to try one of your new novels.

    1. Thank you. My ‘troubles’ were not so much medical as having a neurologist who had no idea what an obscure injury between the connections between the cerebellum and the spinal cord meant, and so threw at me any drug known to affect the brain. For eight years I was on one bizarre, unrelated medication – from Thorazine to something with a name I try not to remember – which had the effect of worsening the spasm and tremor of the injury. After eight years, (which were considered a success by the doctor, as I had ceased complaining about pain entirely. Or about anything,) one night I decided not to take any of these. It took another eight years for all the random medications to work their way out of my body.
      This is almost certainly more information than you expected to get, but it is the story of why I disappeared from publishing and why I am now publishing again. To summarize it all: I fell off a horse onto a rock. I have a new novel coming our in June (I think) through Wordfire Press. It is to be followed by another, a few months afterwards. They were written with Nancy Palmer and will be called Albatross and Shimmer. They are basically one long book which is both Science Fiction and Fantasy, set in the near future. I hope it doesn’t disappoint you!

      1. I have enjoyed your books for many years. I retain a copy of “Tea With the Black Dragon” whose pages bring great entertainment no matter how many times I read it. I look forward to enjoying your new book. Thank you so much!

  2. I remember stumbling across, and then over, the word: animist. It chimed in my head. Although I generally dodge labels, I wrapped myself in this one. This, then. A word for my relation to the world, the instinctive communing, that despite the efforts of a patriarchial church kept me crouched wondering over a blade of grass, or late to some event because I was caught by the sight of pebbles, or the pausing of some cat.

    Another clue, perhaps, to why you and I can communicate.

  3. Dear R.A. MacAvoy,

    Sorry, this is not a comment but a long delayed thank-you note from your reader.

    What I wanted to say, in brief, is that I love your writing and your special voice and please do more and thank you very much for it. 20+ years ago I stumbled across your Lens of World in a library, and it was great, and as the years go by it is still great. Since then I probably read all your books, and, having found this website – will browse it. I am very interested in what you have to say.
    It is amazing that the Lens of the world and your other books are not better known, but your characters are kind of publicity shy, so maybe that does project out to the real world. I read on the internet the story behind your prolonged silence and while it must be hell from the inside, from the outside it looks like something that could have happened to one of your characters and that the character has persevered over the adversity and stupidity of fate and people.

    In conclusion, your books are amazing, I am a fan, if you need a reason to write, please write for me and my friends, but I am sure you have better reasons than that and we all can look forward to seeing something new from you. Keeping fingers crossed.

    with kind regards

  4. Dear Ms Macavoy,
    It’s been many years and many times that I have read your delightful book, “Tea with The Black Dragon”.
    I picked it up again tonight, here in Victoria, BC, December, 2016. Though my copy is a worn and yellowed soft cover, it has moved with me through my childhood and into adulthood. My first visit to San Francisco was in large part due to your writing about the city.
    Thank you for the characters who meant something real. Oolong and Martha have found a place on my life and I continue to think about them with pleasure and affection.
    I wish you very, very well,
    Laurie Farkas

  5. Dear Ms Macavoy,
    It’s been many years and many times that I have read your delightful book, “Tea with The Black Dragon”.
    I picked it up again tonight, here in Victoria, BC, December, 2016. Though my copy is a worn and yellowed soft cover, it has moved with me through my childhood and into adulthood. My first visit to San Francisco was in large part due to your writing about the city.
    Thank you for the characters who meant something real. Oolong and Martha have found a place in my life and I continue to think about them with pleasure and affection.
    I wish you very, very well,
    Laurie Farkas

  6. I recently finished reading Tea with the Black Dragon and The Twisted Rope.

    I do not understand Long, Although I do see him as changed from a dragon, I do want to know more about him, his befores and his afters?☺

    I see thar one series deals with angels and something about dragons, and I have pit that series on my Kindle list.

    Is there more about him in another book?

    Thanks for a lovely book!

    – Penny LaRaia

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